First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

Top 10 Top 10 photography documentaries

© First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

Over the years, filmmakers, writers, and directors have focused their attention on those fascinating and often enigmatic individuals who have helped shape the very foundations of photography as we know it today.

─── by Josh Bright, February 23, 2024
  • The results: a litany of compelling photography documentaries that extol the artistry of these eminent practitioners, their works, and the medium itself, whilst simultaneously revealing their individualities and complexities.

    Photo of landscape photographer Ansel Adams from Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film
    © Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film

    1. Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film

    Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, tells the story of who is arguably, the most important landscape photographer of all time, a master and visionary whose large format, black and white images, articulately described the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the United States.

    Written and directed by award-winning filmmaker, Ric Burns, the ninety-minute documentary pays tribute to Adams’ extraordinary photographic exploits, his innovative approach, and the deep environmentalism that underpinned everything he did. It is a fitting oration to a remarkable figure who was pivotal in the eventual acceptance of photography as a form of art, and in shaping American’s perception of their homeland.


    Cover image What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann
    © What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

    2. What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann

    What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann, is an arresting tribute to one of the finest photographers of our time.

    From her rise to prominence in the early 1990s (on the back of the deeply moving, controversial, and now iconic body of work Immediate Family) her subsequent flirtation with landscape imagery, and her macabre, yet, complex and compelling series, What Remains in the early 2000s, the Steven Cantor-directed film surveys the entirety of Mann’s fascinating career, as well as her personal life including her fifty-year marriage to Larry (who was diagnosed with a rare form of muscular dystrophy in the late 1990s).

    Profoundly absorbing, it is a detailed and reflective account of a unique and masterful photographer, whose deeply poignant, monochrome imagery cuts to the very heart of the human condition.


    Cover image from photography documentary, Everybody Street.
    © Everybody Street

    3. Everybody Street

    “I wanted to meet my idols so I went to the streets and followed their footsteps,” …You stand there for five minutes, you’re going to see something funny…“You never finish the mission; the street is constantly evolving.” – Cheryl Dunn

    New York City and Street Photography share an unshakeable synonymity that harks back to the medium’s embryonic years. In Everybody Street, the 2013 feature documentary, American photographer Cheryl Dunn explores this decades-old relationship, meeting iconic practitioners who have made the city’s streets their domain. From Magnum veteran Elliot Erwitt to Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz, and Bruce Gilden, Dunn follows her distinguished cast as they traverse this chaotic urban playground in search of treasure: moments of joy, love, and humor. Brimming with anecdotes, insights, and valuable lessons, it offers a compelling behind-the-scenes look at the methods and techniques behind some of the most memorable ‘street’ images in existence and pays tribute to the chaotic, yet intoxicating spirit of this kaleidoscopic city.

    cover image of documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, The Salt of the Earth
    © The Salt of the Earth

    4. The Salt of the Earth

    The Salt of the Earth is a deeply considered and engaging biography of Sebastião Salgado, one of the medium’s greatest living practitioners.

    Co-directed by the legendary German filmmaker Wim Wenders and Sebastião’s son Juliano Ribeiro, it charts the Brazilian photographer’s remarkable four-decade-long career, dissecting his powerful monochrome works that convey, with great eloquence, some of the most important issues of our age. Winner of multiple awards, it captivates from beginning to end, and stands as a fitting testament to the vision, artistry, and deep compassion of an extraordinary individual who describes himself as a ‘witness to the human condition.’


    cover of documentary "Finding Vivian Maier"
    © Vivian Maier

    5. Finding Vivian Maier

    Finding Vivian Maier is the intriguing story of the enigmatic and masterful street photographer who, over the course of five decades, captured over 100,000 negatives, which she never revealed to the world. 

    Filmmaker John Maloof and producer Charlie Siskel uncover her extraordinary story, charting her life, from her teenage years in France, her return to her birth city of New York, and finally, Chicago, where she spent much of her adult years working as a nanny. They meet those who knew her personally, uncovering fascinating insights and anecdotes, as they attempt to profile a mysterious individual whom the New York Times dubbed ‘one of America’s more insightful street photographers.’


    Cover image for Photography Documentary McCullin, about photographer Don McCullin
    © McCullin

    6. McCullin

    A profoundly compelling portrait of a true great of photojournalism, McCullin, the double BAFTA-nominated documentary, focuses on the life and work of the British photographer, most notably, the penetrative depictions of war for which he is renowned.

    Over the course of his extraordinary career, he has covered, with brutal realism, conflict, and disaster on almost every continent, imparting the realities of war and famine, to people back home. The utterly absorbing, eponymous film, simultaneously pays tribute to a generational practitioner whose influence on photojournalism is truly prodigious, whilst also capturing a thoughtful and forthright individual, who, though undoubtedly haunted and disgusted by what he has seen and captured, speaks candidly of its magnetism.


    Photography of photographer Saul Leiter. Still from photography documentary, In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter 

    7. In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter 

    Widely recognized as one of the most important practitioners of the post-war period, photographer Saul Leiter was an early pioneer of color, renowned for the exquisite painting-like images he captured on the streets surrounding his Manhattan home.

    However, though he spent much of his career working on commercial assignments for renowned fashion publications such as Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar, it wasn’t until the latter stages of his life (galvanized by the release of Early Color in 2006)  that he would begin to gain the recognition that he so thoroughly deserved. A lack of validation has not been uncommon for forward-thinking artists throughout history, not least those early pioneers of color photography whose progressive vision confounded the artistic gatekeepers of the time. Yet this anonymity suited Leiter, whose quiet, modesty, was captured beautifully by British director Tomas Leach in the 2013 feature documentary, In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter. Touching, intimate, and frequently, humorous, it combines conversations (captured predominantly inside Leiter’s NYC apartment) with some of his most captivating works, painting a heartwarming profile of a remarkable artist and character, who sadly, passed away just days after the film’s release.


    Photo of Annie Leibovitz
    © Martin Schoeller / Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

    8. Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

    Widely regarded as one of the medium’s most important living practitioners, Leibovitz has captured some of the most engaging and iconic portraits of all time throughout her five-decade-long career.

    Directed by her younger sister, filmmaker Barbara, Life Through a Lens portrays Leibovitz with unprecedented intimacy.  She talks candidly on a range of subjects, from her artistic processes, personal journeys, and the delicate and often difficult balance of work, fame, and family. Sensitive yet revealing, it is a fascinating exposition of an extraordinary artist who, though a master at capturing the personalities of others, has rarely revealed much of herself to the outside world.


    photo of photographer Bill Cunningham in New York city, from documentary Bill Cunningham - New York
    © First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

    9. Bill Cunningham – New York

    A major figure within street and fashion photography, Bill Cunningham spent almost four decades traversing the streets of New York City (usually on his bicycle) capturing candid and compelling images of its best-dressed denizens.

    Witty, heartwarming, and thoroughly absorbing, the aptly titled Bill Cunningham – New York is a touching portrait of a unique individual driven by a deep interest in others (and their clothing) and whose honesty and benevolence often seem at odds with the ruthless elitism of the fashion world.


    Cover image from photography documentary, Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light
    © Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light

    10. ​Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light

    Helen Whitney’s compelling 1995 documentary imparts the story of arguably the most important fashion photographer of all time: Richard Avedon.

    Through interviews with his friends and family, other notable figures, and the photographer himself, combined with some of his most memorable images, Whitney constructs a detailed profile on Avedon that remains coherent and engaging, despite the absence of any linear structure. It stands as a tribute to the prodigious artistry and uncompromising creativity of a true master of his craft, whose imprint on the world of fashion photography cannot be overstated.


    All images © their respective owners